Body size, body norms and some unintended consequences of obesity intervention in the Pacific islands

A new study coauthored by Amy McLennan shows that while Pacific Islanders have experienced over 50 years of obesity interventions, such interventions mostly fail because they re-shape people’s body norms in ways that are confusing to them. The standard model of obesity intervention, involving  diet and exercise suggests a fairly straight attitudinal path to behaviour change: providing more information about the dangers of obesity will lead to changes in beliefs about and intentions toward diet/exercise; this, in turn, will lead to healthierbehaviours and choices. However, this doesn’t work in the Pacific Islands because the ways people understand and respond to concerns around obesity are far more complicated. These researchers suggests that health interventions incorporating multi-faceted data involving

social, cultural and economic evidence would probably perform better, than interventions which assume that body size, norms and experiences are individual characteristics or ‘factors’ that are within an individual’s power to control. They go on to say that interventions that focus only on body size measures may increase suffering and decrease their own effectiveness, and so be part of the problem.


Body size, body norms and some unintended consequences of obesity intervention in the Pacific islands

Jessica Hardin, Amy K. McLennan & Alexandra Brewis

Annals of Human Biology, 2018, 45:3, 285-294.

Nobel Prize Dialogue Tokyo, Yokohama, Japan, 11 March 2018

Stanley Ulijaszek (UBVO Director) was recently a participant at the Nobel Prize Dialogue Tokyo 2018, on the Future of Food. Two Panel discussions with Nobel  Laurates Johann Deisenhofer and Sir Tim Hunt on “What we eat and why? Anthropological, historical and cultural reasons” and “The obesity epidemic” detailed the complexities of understanding both. More information is available here:


What’s next? The National Obesity Observatory

Caroline Potter (UBVO Deputy Director) recently spoke to Harry Rutter, Senior Clinical Research Fellow at London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and Senior Strategic Advisor on Obesity at Public Health England. The discussion centers on the past, present, and future of the “National Obesity Observatory,” founded by Rutter in 2007.

The complete interview is available here.


Grandparental support helps reduce the risk of child obesity

According to an English saying, it takes a whole village to raise a child. A new study from the Karolinska Institutet, including two UBVO collaborators (Stanley Ulijaszek and Pauline Nowicka), has shown how important the support from grandparents could be. According to the study, which is being published in Pediatric Obesity, emotional support from grandparents has a protective effect against child obesity, even with the presence of other risk factors.

Previous studies have shown that the parents’ socioeconomic status affects the risk of children developing obesity. But the effect of other family-related aspects on this risk has not been investigated to the same extent. Researchers from Karolinska Institutet and researchers in social anthropology at Oxford University have jointly investigated the importance of grandparental support in this context.

The study included 39 preschool-aged children from Stockholm County who had received treatment for obesity. Both the mother and father of the children answered detailed questionnaires in which socio-economic status was measured by education and income levels, work and domestic situation and by how much money they had left at the end of the month. After this, they answered questions about the kinds of support – and how much – they received from their own parents, i.e. the children’s grandparents. The questions aimed to establish the extent to which grandparents contributed daily support, e.g. help with washing and cleaning, financial support and emotional support, which could create a sense of being seen and understood.

Received emotional support

It transpired that when the parents received emotional support from their own parents, it had a protective effect against obesity in their children. Parental income is in itself linked to the BMI, Body Mass Index, in children. But the children of parents with a low income and a low level of emotional support had a higher degree of obesity than children whose parents had a low income but a high level of emotional support.

“Our study shows that emotional support from grandparents may have a preventive effect against child obesity, which is a serious disease. These findings could, for instance, be incorporated into the planning of public health programmes that are aimed at reducing obesity in children. Greater social support for families with small children could help alleviate stress in parents, who will thereby be in a better position to make better food choices,” says Paulina Nowicka, Associate Professor at the Department of Clinical Science, Intervention and Technology at Karolinska Institutet, and UBVO Associate.

The study in question is funded by Karolinska Institutet, the Vinnmer Marie Curie International Qualification and the Princess Lovisa Foundation for Child Health Care.


Low grandparental social support combined with low parental socioeconomic status is closely associated with obesity in preschool-aged children: A pilot study
Louise Lindberg, Anna Ek, Jonna Nyman, Claude Marcus, Stanley Ulijaszek, Paulina Nowicka
Pediatric Obesity, article first published online 19 June 2015, doi: 10.1111/ijpo.12049

Oxford obesity research featured in The Telegraph

The Telegraph recently featured research from Dr Amy McLennan and Professor Stanley Ulijaszek on how social change under colonial rule has contributed to the current rates of obesity on Nauru and the Cook Islands in the Pacific. The study’s title is ‘Obesity emergence in the Pacific islands: why understanding colonial history and social change is important’ and was first published in the Journal of Public Health Nutrition (August 2014).

See ‘British made Pacific islanders fat by civilising them with fried food.’ The Telegraph. (29 August 2014)

UBVO and Amy Sharrocks’ Museum of Water


As part of a series of events for the Museum of Water, Professor Stanley Ulijaszek delivered a talk entitled Water and evolution of the human diet on Tuesday 17 June, at Somerset House.

Water is in many ways taken for granted in everyday life, but is fundamental to what we are and who we are. From population expansions out of Africa to the present-day, water has shaped migration and settlement patterns, foraging practices and behaviours, and food security both globally and locally. Water is embedded in human metabolism and in the structure of food. It is vital for food production and consumption. This talk described the many ways in which water is implicated in the human diet: if we are what we eat, what we eat and how we eat is shaped by water. 


An interactive seminar on water and the human diet


For more information about the Museum of Water and events, click here

Workshop: Food Systems Advocacy

This afternoon seminar, held at St Cross College on 22 May 2014, presented working papers on food systems advocacy, developed as part of the Oxford Food Governance Group’s project on consumer engagements with food governance.

Click here for more information and photos from the day


Convenors Tanja Schneider, Karin Eli and Stanley Ulijazek with keynote speaker Geof Rayner